There are Things You Can’t Escape (Part 2)

There are Things You Can’t Escape (Part 2)

More than a year ago now (I didn’t realize it had been that long!) I wrote an answer to the prompt There are Things You Can’t Escape. I used it to start a short side story to one of my projects that may end up getting shuffled out of the timeline (though I hope not because I’m kind of attached to it now). In any case, I always meant to continue that story, but it got lost in the shuffle. This is the 90th prompt I’ve done and I decided to make the special prompt for this group of ten what happens next? So here is the long overdo next part of this story.
. . .

The shrine – for that was surely what it was – was opposite the Imperial Palace in every way imaginable. It was smaller than the wing that served as her private quarters. Could probably have fit in a small corner of her personal garden, in fact. The walls were decorated with a simple bas-relief of geometric patterns, carved from cloudy white jade. Located as it was, near the center of the vast Imperial complex – not far from the emperor’s quarters – it was surrounded by a host of more spectacular sights, making it easy to miss.

How many dignitaries walked by it on a daily basis, Adelle wondered, and never even noticed it was there? Never thought about what lay within.

“You don’t have to go in, you know.” Her maid, Mariel, cast an uneasy glance at the low, undecorated doorway housing the ancient wood door. “Not many people speak to him these days. Or so the court says. He spends most of his time sleeping.”

Unlike Adelle, who remained woefully resigned to the edges of every circle of nobility within the emperor’s court, Mariel had not only found a niche, she had flourished. She had friends with deep pockets and keen ears. The kind that could help her find the right friends when the moment came. After all, if she was going to make a life here at the palace, she would need to know which nobles to draw within her sphere of influence and which to avoid at all costs. Mariel already had a list of useful secrets filed away for later.

But as grateful as Adelle was for Mariel’s gift of gab, those tidbits were of little concern to her at the moment. She cared little about which countesses were cheating on their husbands and which grand dukes were plotting to increase their fortunes through less than savory means. Passing through that door might help her make sense of her purpose here. And until she found that clarity, there was little point in trying to act.

She steeled herself and marched up the stairs. Mariel glanced in either direction, as if looking for an easy escape, before she slunk up the stairs in Adelle’s wake.

Adelle grasped the aging silver knocker and rapped it three times against the door, as she had been instructed. She was beginning to think she had messed up the pattern when the heavy door finally slid open, allowing her to enter.

She expected the interior of the shrine to be one great room, extending as high as the palace walls outside. But its interior was even less impressive than its exterior, though it was obviously designed to be comfortable. The first chamber was small, merely an entry way. Two narrow hallways led to either side of the central room; access passages for the servants, she guessed.

The rest of the modest space was devoted to a comfortable bedroom. It might have been identical to any of the imperial guest chambers, aside from the stasis pod set into a deep alcove in the back wall. It was open now, its curved windows glistening icy blue-green even beneath the subdued lights.

There was no altar to receive offerings; a blessing, as far as she was concerned. She doubted her uncle would have looked kindly on any behavior that bordered worship. But there were several sitting chairs, upholstered in fine blue silk. Unlike the rest of the palace, which seemed draped in bold reds and oranges and trimmed everywhere in gold, the interior of the shrine was decorated with cool, soothing blues and greens.

The central room had no door; its sole occupant rarely had need of privacy if he spent most of his time in the sleeping pod. Already she could see him through the narrow entry arch. He had forsaken all of the comfortable chairs and couches to settle cross-legged on a cushion on the floor. Servants had set food, water and tea within easy reach of hands. The space between a table and chair might have been too much for him to handle.

He could not have looked more unlike the last time she saw him. Then, he had been young and full of vitality. Not all that different from her father. They had the same facial structure, of course; the same strong jaw line and slightly too-small nose, the same bushy eyebrows and charming grin. Now he seemed diminished, withered and wrinkled with age, his eyes almost lost in the creases of his face. His hair and eyebrows were thin and white as new-fallen snow. His long, delicate fingers shook as he reached for the tea cup, though somehow he managed to hold the vessel steady as he lifted it to his lips.

He wore a robe so intricately decorated, Adelle doubted there was an inch left without embellishment. Somehow, it made him look smaller and more fragile. But one thing which had not changed was his smile. And when his eyes locked with hers across the distance, the charm lit up his face the same way it had in his youth.

He motioned her forward with his free hand and she moved without hesitation, settling on a cushion across from him.

“You do not need to look as though you have seen a ghost,” he proclaimed with a wheezing laugh, his voice as brittle as an icicle on a warm day.

“But I have, haven’t I? You should have seen the look on my face when the emperor’s aid informed me that my uncle still lived.”

“Well, I’m not sure any of us call it living anymore. The courtiers have mostly forgotten about me. My great grandson certainly loves to pretend I passed long ago. Gives him a freer reign, or so he thinks.”

Considering the current emperor’s sullen and childish nature, Adelle could see why everyone wanted an excuse to hold him in check, though she wondered how much difference it made. Her first question, upon learning of her uncle’s unexpected longevity was why he did not still rule. Now that she saw him, she understood why. He was in no position to oversee every important decision. It was no wonder gaining an audience with him was impossibly difficult; for everyone aside from her, it seemed.

“But why? Were you afraid I wouldn’t uphold my father’s bargain if you weren’t around to oversee it yourself? He impressed upon me how important it was, you know. And I am enough of my mother’s daughter to understand.”

Another smile stretched the old man’s lips. “You may be too much your mother, if you ask me, my dear. But while it is true I have kept myself alive for this very moment, it is nothing so crass. Perhaps I feared you would actually make good on the bargain. Perhaps that was why I felt the need to be present.”

Adelle blinked. “You don’t think I should marry your great grandson?”

“Considering his reputation, I can’t imagine you want to and no one can fault you for that. They might try to judge you for it, but that is another matter. Your father and I understood the necessities of arranged marriages. That doesn’t mean we were particularly fond of them.”

“I’m not exactly sure you can consider my parents’ marriage arranged. It was what they both wanted.”

The wizened old emperor sipped noisily from his tea cup before lowering it back to the tray in front of him. “But it came with a bevy of conditions neither of them liked. It has ever been the way of the imperial family that heirs must adhere to what the current emperor deems best. I tried to remember that when it was my turn to rule but, alas, I was not entirely guiltless when it came time to hand directives to my sons. One of them involved your father’s agreement. Our father wouldn’t allow him to abdicate unless he could ensure Alphalaruan blood would one day join the imperial mix.”

Adelle didn’t need to hear the story again; she was well familiar with it. She replayed the conversation with her father in her mind every time she faltered. “It would be a lie to say I never considered running to the farthest reaches of the galaxy in hopes of escaping the inevitable. But my mother faced many challenges throughout her life that she would rather have avoided. She always did her duty, and explained to her children the importance of fulfilling our roles. She never allowed us to forget the price of our privileged lives was to repay the masses with whatever service ensured the greater good.”

Her uncle drew a deep breath and released it as a surprisingly long sigh. She hadn’t anticipated his aged lungs to work so well still. “I hate myself for the role I played in this, Adelle. We lived, and ruled, at a volatile time, your father and I. Sometimes there is no good choice among those from which you may choose and you must, instead, settle for the lesser of two evils.

“I built this chamber, preserved my short and fragile life this extra century and a half, so that I could tell you in person how sorry I am. I did not want to lock you in a prison, though in some ways I have done so by not allowing the contract to fade from memory and record. I brought myself to this moment so that I could offer you a choice between the life you want and the life no doubt thrust upon you.

“But now that I am here, now that the moment has come, it would be a lie to say that your good, solid sense is not needed in the palace. I do not think I gave my son too much freedom when I raised him. He ruled well, and it is a shame his rule ended prematurely. Nor do I believe it was his intention to spoil his only son, but I believe he died before he was able to teach him the most important lessons an emperor must learn. When he died, that burden should have fallen to me but, as you can see, I have only a handful of days left in me. Not enough to teach him what he needs to know. So I have endured, strategically mitigating his tantrums until the arrival of one wise enough to fulfill the task.”

Adelle sat for a long moment in silence, rolling her uncle’s words through her mind. She had heard that the creep of age and the inevitable approach of death often caused people to discover regret. But she had many years of life left before she would start to experience it herself.

“If your father had given you a choice,” she said at last, “what would you have done?”

He barked a crack laugh and it became a cough. “You have seen it. My father died long before I built this chamber. I could have reversed his decision. I accepted that long ago.”

Adelle nodded. “You have given me my choice, Uncle. And I have made the same decision that you did.”

“Duty.” The single word was barely more than a whisper.

“Duty.” She agreed.

“You are your mother’s daughter. And I weep that it must be so.”

“It isn’t your fault, Uncle.” Her voice was soft and soothing and she leaned forward to grasp his wrinkled hand. “There are some things we simply cannot escape.”

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